An Author’s Etiquette

There is no manual for dealing with reviews, but there is an unwritten rule.

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This might come as a surprise to you, but not everyone can handle criticism. To step into the ring of writing, one has to have a pretty tough (though not impenetrable) skin when it comes to feedback. Your beta-reader, critique-provider, or editor may not have enjoyed a scene that you loved writing, or found something problematic with a relationship dynamic, and their insight could prove invaluable when constructing later drafts—and that is great!

That being said, they may respond with indifference or only be reading your work out of obligation and thus offer nothing constructive to the table. Some people may simply be outright rude—but what counts as rude? In the age of the internet, it seems the idea of critique often gets mislabelled as nastiness to those unable to hear a negative word said about their work. To make it simple: an opinion about your work is not rude, unless it gets personal for you as the author.

For example:

“I’m not sure I enjoyed the dynamic between X and Y. It felt predictable in some areas and sometimes it fell quite flat. I personally felt like X was a bit of a d**k. Maybe I’m not the target audience?”

That is clearly critique. However, if instead the reader said this:

“I’m not sure I enjoyed the dynamic between X and Y. The author panders too much to younger audiences and as a result their writing is quite juvenile. I’ve also heard the author is a bit of a d**k so that may be why they let X behave that way.”

That is personal to the author and deliberately targets them rather than the work the reader is supposed to be critiquing.

The issue here is for one reason: It can take years to write a book, and that’s why not everyone does it—but anyone can write a review, and that includes trolls and generally not nice people. Now, normally, these critiques will be pulled apart by fellow reviewers for what they are. “If you don’t like the author, why read their work?” or “Tell me what the issue is with the book, not some gossip you heard somewhere,” and, quite simply, “Just because you don’t like the book doesn’t mean you should bully the author.”

So, what should authors look for?

Respectable, trusted beta-readers, sensitivity readers, agents, editors and such—all before publishing—should have their critiques formally engaged with. This is information that you can use before your work goes to print. Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) are also a thing, where lucky select readers get to read the penultimate draft before the book finally debuts. This is version of the text won’t be formatted or have any fancy dust jackets, and the text is subject to change depending on the reviews from those fortunate enough to read it (librarians, booksellers, competition winners, celebrities etc.). This is all valuable feedback and is why one’s critiquing skin needs to be thick but not impenetrable. As much as we would love for our first drafts to be perfect (or even our 4th, 5th, or 10th…), this is not the case, but all this feedback helps an author grow.

You may have noticed that in the above list I didn’t mention reviewers. Why is that? Well, a review isn’t for the author. A review is written for other potential readers of your book. This is why in many reviews one will see words like “If you’re not into X, then maybe this book isn’t for you.” Sometimes they might say something like, “I don’t think the author should have done this.” But that is simply opinion and also there is nothing the author can do to solve any issues, whether there are any or not, as by that point the book is already published and therefore in its finished (or abandoned) state.

Like in any creative industry, those who have been successful advise new arrivals to not read their reviews. That being said, we’re human and so curiosity can be a hard vice to overcome. So, and I will say this now: if you do read your reviews, do not interact with them.

It’s a toxic spiral to enter, with a self-destructive bottom. Reviews happen on a public forum, and as a result any instance an author takes to fire back at those who upset them can be taken as arrogance on the author’s part. It demonstrates a lack of professionalism and showcases an inability to take criticism. Depending on how this is handled, could result in something worse than negative reviews: no reviews.

Who would want to write a review and risk being publicly attacked? Or actually attacked, in some cases, by some particularly thin-skinned authors.

It can be a difficult road to walk down, and sometimes reviewers will have valid reasons for disliking your work—and that can all be taken on-board when writing your next piece—but one has to accept that once it has hit the press, there’s no going back on your text.

It is also worth noting that nine out of ten people could love your work, but that one that doesn’t will affect you the most. They’re the one you will want to please and chase down and say, “Look, I can do better!” but obsessing over pleasing that one person just won’t do you any favours.

So write your novel, listen to the valid critiques and continue pushing forward. Do not feed the trolls and certainly don’t go chasing people who didn’t like your book, regardless of how they worded it.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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